Africa is the world’s second largest and most populous continent, but the rich diversity of its ethnicities, traditions, and languages are often too broadly categorized by Western society – rather than recognize each as its own distinct aesthetic, African culture is inadequately roped into a singular cast.
Waridi Valentine, a fashion designer and social activist, aims to shatter those generalizations. Her line, Zanzibari ArtWear, uses up-cycled fabrics from Zanzibar, Tanzania, the Ivory Coast, and Ghana, drawing attention to each country’s vibrantly hued, heritage-rich textiles.
Grounded in its cultural influences, Zanzibari ArtWear’s design focus is a reflection of the designer and founder’s own African culture experience: The daughter of a professor, Valentine lived in six African countries throughout her early childhood, moving from Tanzania to Zambia and Botswana, then Gambia, Mozambique, and South Africa, and later, the United States. Valentine got her creative streak from her mother, Rose Valentine, an award-winning fashion designer that specializes in embroidered African kaftans that incorporate customary fabrics from varying African nations.
Waridi Valentine’s Zanzibari ArtWear builds on her mother’s own vision by blending traditional African fabrics with modern accessories – wayfarer sunglasses are reinvented with colorful tribal prints, and Africa-shaped statement earrings draw attention in neon shades. She inherited her philanthropic streak, too: the elder Valentine donates a substantial portion of her proceeds to educating local children, and Waridi Valentine has made it a point to continue that culture in founding the Seeking Amani Project, a program that enriches Tanzanian curriculums with artistically inclined educational programs.
While grounded in her passion for philanthropy, art, and design, Valentine utilizes on her educational background to balance creativity and entrepreneurship. A former social worker and non-profit executive, Valentine relies on her analytical skills to assess the types of retail partnerships essential for aligning her philanthropic and artistic goals.
Currently based in New York, Valentine recognizes that her unique cultural milieu has informed her design practice, her art business, and drive to give back. Here, Valentine talks to Artrepreneur about the importance of honoring your roots, and connecting with artists who understand the value of collaboration.
Zanzibari ArtWear: Style Meets Social Good
NM: What’s the inspiration behind Zanzibari ArtWear?
WV: Zanzibari ArtWear is an afro-centric accessories line that embodies my style. It’s an homage to Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania. Western African countries are really into dyes and prints and that’s very integrated in much of Western African culture, but Tanzanian fabrics aren’t so into prints. When designing for Zanzibari ArtWear, I’m really thinking about textures, because from my mother I’ve always known that these fabrics are a wonderful quality. I try to integrate Tanzanian fabrics, but I’m very attracted to Western African colors. I try to be eclectic and incorporate different African cultures. When you go to Zanzibar and then visit the mainland, you realize that these two countries are day and night, and I feel like that about myself and my line.
NM: How do you complement design and social good in your Zanzibari ArtWear enterprise?
WV: I use up-cycled fabrics, so they’ve already been used and instead of throwing away the scraps I’m making then into art. Those concepts are applied in my art business and in my non-profit organization, the Seeking Amani Project, because I try to create projects that the children will be able to utilize and implement in their community. I try to teach them the method behind the production, so they don’t have to rely on certain tools in order to create something good for their community.
NM: How has your education contributed to your ability to complement your creative business with social good?
WV: In Missouri, I had a leadership role with the Yeyo Arts Collective, and I enjoyed that I could still help people in the community while still being able to do creative work. That kind of expanded my view on what I wanted to do, which was marry my social work with fashion and African culture. I decided to study design management at the Pratt Institute because they really encouraged people with different backgrounds. It’s really been a tool for taking advantage of what I know and creating a platform I can both manage and deliver and utilize anywhere. With my psychology background, I know how to analyze information, but in terms of design I wasn’t always articulate when breaking my vision down. My education has really helped me manage my art business and social good goals.
Valentine’s Art Business is Built on Collaboration and Strategic Marketing
NM: What are some behaviors that hold artists back?
WV: I feel like sometimes artists can be very competitive, and people don’t realize that a collective can get you really far. I like to say that “teamwork makes the dreamwork,” because its true. I think the fact that I have experience living abroad has really helped me to understand that concept: in Tanzania, people are very focused on what they’re going to do, and how they can work together to do it. So, what I tell other artists is, if you like my ideas, have a conversation with me – you don’t have to have an us vs. them mentality. There’s plenty of room for all of us, and we each have our own unique vision and talent.
NM: How has collaborating with other artists influenced your success?
WV: I’ve worked with Brooklyn-based designer NAKIMULI, an afro-centric clothing brand that’s been worn by celebrities like Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, and Jazmine Sullivan. When I was branching out and considering how to expand my art business, I reached out to designer Tennille McMillan and she started mentoring me. She has collaborated on several styling projects with me. I’ve also worked with clothing brand Dope on Arrival.
NM: What’s your production strategy? How do you keep your customers engaged with the brand?
WV: I try not to mass-produce the same types of styles, so that each product can remain unique. Personally, I have never appreciated the idea that something I wear can be purchased and worn by someone else, and I try and offer my clients something that can’t be found just anywhere. I like that to have that control, and I’ll often additionally offer customization and cater to a specific frame. I also let them know that some styles are limited since my fabric is mostly from the Ivory Coast, Tanzania, and Nigeria. I am also pretty selective about where we distribute our accessories because I prefer to sell in intimate, boutique settings. My goal for the brand and my art business, above everything else, is to remain unique.
NM: So how do you find clients? Has managing your art business been a learning experience?
WV: I sell direct-to-consumer on my online art business, as well as in boutiques. Initially when I started I was super eager and ready to vend anywhere and go anywhere to get clients. I forced myself to do that and learn how to market and talk to customers, but I don’t like being so assertive; I prefer to reach out to people once they know me and get to know my brand. So, instead of having this over-the-top presence at trade shows and fairs, I’m focused on creating strong visual campaigns. I collaborate with other designers, and we style shoots and cross-promote. I’ve been in the game for a bit, and I don’t want to outdo myself, and I don’t want to deplete my resources.
NM: With so many different projects, how do you stay disciplined?
WV: It’s all about maintaining schedules and not overextending yourself on multiple endeavors when you know one project will require more of your time. For example, Zanzibari ArtWear really picks up on production around May and through December. Then, I start working on spring collections. In the fall, I’ll be busy writing grants and fundraising for Seeking Amani Project, and in spring and summer, I’m busy trying to coordinate whether people are coming to volunteer for the workshop. Needless to say, I’m connected to Whatsapp constantly! Fortunately, all of these initiatives really align – I am celebrating African culture through fashion and giving back to the community that so deeply inspires me.
Learn more about Waridi Valentine and Zanzibari ArtWear by visiting her Orangenius profile.